DID that headline make you uncomfortable? Of course it did, and you're not alone. As Publisher's Weekly reports (external - login to view), NewSouth Books is releasing a new edition of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (yes, the first title apparently does lack the definite article) with the words "******" and "injun" removed.
"Political correctness!" you cry. Not so fast. The editor, Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama, explained that when he took part in Big Read Alabama, a state-wide reading programme that had chosen "Tom Sawyer" as its text for 2009,
I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and 'Huckleberry Finn', but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable.He elaborates, in his introduction to the new edition (external - login to view), that "numerous communities currently ban 'Huckleberry Finn' as required reading in public schools owing to its offensive racial language", and that in his long experience, people prefer it without the racial slurs:
For nearly forty years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of 'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huckleberry Finn' in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck. I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed.On the one hand, I'm inclined to defend Mr Gribben. His motives are clearly noble. He wants to make classics of American literature more widely read, and is willing to pay the price of a little sanitisation. Even with the words "******" and "injun" gone from the books, you'd have to be an idiot to read them and not notice how widespread and evil slavery and racial prejudice were; so if cleaning up Twain makes more young people read him and learn about life back then, that is surely to the good. Finally, as he points out, this new edition hardly wipes the unexpurgated Twain off the literary map:
...literally dozens of other editions are available for those readers who prefer Twain’s original phrasing. Those standard editions will always exist... This NewSouth Edition of 'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huckleberry Finn' is emphatically not intended for academic scholars.On the other hand, I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates Jamelle Bouie on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog (external - login to view) that
erasing "******" from 'Huckleberry Finn'—or ignoring our failures—doesn't change anything. It doesn't provide racial enlightenment, or justice, and it won't shield anyone from the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection.A sanitised Twain may teach young readers a lot, but it hides from them a crucial insight: that a word they know to be unacceptable now was once utterly commonplace. You can't fully appreciate why "******" is taboo today if you don't know how it was used back then, and you can't fully appreciate what it was like to be a slave if you don't know how slaves were addressed. The "visible sense of relief" Mr Gribben reports in his listeners is not, in fact, desirable; feeling discomfort when you read the book today is part of the point of reading it. (Of course, even today, if you're black, you may well use "******" in the company of other blacks. But even to understand why that use is okay while its use by a white person isn't, you have to be aware of the word's historical role.)
Furthermore, eliminating "******" and "injun" elides how closely language is tied to social norms. The everyday words we use aren't chosen by chance or dictated by a dictionary; they reflect our relationships with one another. This is a basic lesson in how human society works. Given how little young Americans read, one who reads the original Twain is unlikely to read much else that teaches it so clearly.
I might still side with Mr Gribben, however, were it not for one thing. He goes so far to avoid these words that he circumvents them even in his introduction. He writes that Twain
was endeavoring to accurately depict the prevailing social attitudes along the Mississippi River Valley during the 1840s by repeatedly employing in both novels a linguistic corruption of “Negro” in reference to African American slaves, and by tagging the villain in 'Tom Sawyer' with a deprecating racial label for Native Americans... in Chapter 1, the boys refer to slaves four times with the pejorative n-word.The sheer hammering repetition of "******"—219 times in Huckleberry Finn—may justify cutting it out of the text. But refusing even to mention it when you're explaining why you've cut it out smacks of just what Mr Coates Bouie alleges: an "aversion to history and reflection". The very fact that the text has had a word excised is itself an important lesson in the history and politics of language, but it's a lesson lost on young people if you can't even bring yourself to tell them, unambiguously, what that word is.
Update: There's a good discussion at the New York Times' "Room for Debate", with a preponderance in favour of keeping Twain as is. I best like Gish Jen's comment (external - login to view): "It is, of course, perfectly fine to change the texts of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, so long as the cover reads, by Mark Twain* with a footnote: *as bowdlerized by Alan Gribben."
Economist (external - login to view)